Nutrition Strategies: Making or Breaking Your Race


, by Renee McGregor

Photography by: Joaquin Corbalan

Nutrition can make or break a race, especially in endurance events. But while most of you are aware of the role nutrition plays in fueling and recovery, you may not be aware that it is also integral to optimal performance.

Ensuring that you make the appropriate choices during your training sessions will not only help you to progress in your training but will also help to maintain your motivation. In addition, recent studies have shown that the timing of your nutrition has an integral role to play in hormonal balance, bone health, and maintaining your immune system. As they say, a healthy athlete is a happy athlete.

Carbohydrate is key

Carbohydrate is the key fuel source for exercise. When consumed, it is broken down into glucose and then used by the body to provide energy. The body stores carbohydrates as glycogen in the liver and muscles.

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It is this energy source that enables us to perform, as it releases energy faster than other sources. However, our ability to store this energy is limited. If the muscles are inadequately fueled, it will lead to fatigue, poor performance - and potentially a greater risk of injury.

When your muscle glycogen is at full capacity, it will give you 60-120 minutes of running energy at around 65-75% of your maximal heart rate. The faster you run, the faster your stores will deplete.

To give you some context, it takes around 500g of carbohydrates to fill your muscles’ glycogen stores, with an additional 80g of liver glycogen, mainly used to maintain energy in the brain. When your muscle glycogen is at full capacity, it will give you 60-120 minutes of running energy at around 65-75% of your maximal heart rate. The faster you run, the faster your stores will deplete. Thus, for those of you training most days, your glycogen stores are always slightly depleted.

Fueling your training

During hard training sessions such as intervals, hill reps or tempo work your glycogen stores could become depleted as quickly as 45 minutes into the session. For longer sessions, even though they may be done at a more moderate to low intensity, stores will deplete between 90 and 120 minutes. As such, in both scenarios, fueling during your training sessions should also be considered.

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It is recommended to take on 30-60g of carbohydrates per hour for any session up to 2 hours, and for anything over 2 hours you should be aiming for 60-90g of carbohydrates per hour. This should ideally be in the form of glucose and fructose.

It is worth noting that the body can absorb around 60g of glucose per hour and 30g of fructose, although some new studies suggest the upper limit could be increased to 120g in athletes who train their guts.

It is sensible to plan your fueling for most training sessions. Photography by: Peter Heckmeier

Fueling: your weekly training sessions

It is important to ensure sufficient fueling in the 24-36 hours before any of these sessions to fill your glycogen stores.

Fueling for High-intensity sessions

High-intensity sessions tend to last up to 60 minutes and typically include things like intervals, tempo runs or hill sets. Aim to take on energy around 20-30 minutes into the session. With gels always make sure that you take them on over a period of five minutes to allow for better absorption and ensure that you are hydrated. With Sports drinks, you would benefit from sipping on these throughout the session, maybe after each interval or hill or in the minutes before and immediately after the tempo effort.

Fueling for longer, moderate-intensity sessions

For sessions up to 3 hours (e.g. marathon training or longer bike rides with intensity) you want to start fueling 20 minutes in - this may be in the form of gels, gel blocks, and sports drinks.

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Forward planning is essential here - particularly if you are training for an event. Adequate fueling will ensure that you can maintain your pace and will support your recovery. It will also help train your gut for race day so that you can go into the event confident with your nutrition strategy.

For race day it is essential to find the nutrition and hydration options that work for you.

You should be aiming for 60-90g of carbohydrates per hour during these sessions, and your hydration requirements will range anything from 100-250ml of fluid every 20 minutes depending on the climate conditions and your fluid losses. This would also be a good opportunity to try caffeine, which can be released quickly into the body.

RELATED: How to Fuel for an Ironman Triathlon

Fueling for ultra-distance events

Once again, starting to fuel early is key in ultra-distance events, especially when we think about the types of races and terrains this may cover. A lot of ultra athletes I work with often find that they need to split their fueling up, where they may focus on solid fuel for the first part of the run, then progress towards gels and jellies, before finishing up with liquid and caffeine.

However - and I cannot stress this enough - it is essential to find the practice and options that work for you. I know some elite athletes who can stomach gels throughout 16-hour-plus races, while others can tuck into boiled salted potatoes after 100 miles.

In these very long races staying on top of your hydration and sodium loss is critical so you should aim for a minimum of 90g of carbs. It is worth trying to see if you can consume more without negative consequences as this will result in a more consistent performance.

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